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S. Korean Defense Experts Object to Plan for US to Give Up Wartime Command of Troops

  • Kurt Achin

The United States and South Korea are preparing to restructure their military alliance, with Washington giving up wartime command of Seoul's forces. Yet many senior South Korean defense experts, including several former defense ministers, oppose the idea.

At Seoul's request, the United States plans to give up wartime command of South Korean troops, which would be the biggest change ever to the 56-year-old military agreement.

At least 10 former South Korean defense ministers publicly oppose the command transfer, and many defense experts and opposition party lawmakers also object.

Former South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hoon is among the critics.

Lee says this is not the time for South Korea to take back wartime control. Instead, he says the alliance and its existing command structure should be reinforced.

He and other opponents of the plan say South Korea does not have the intelligence and surveillance capability to deal with the secretive North Korea.

Among other things, opponents to the plan are concerned about North Korea's efforts to build nuclear weapons and its missile program.

Pyongyang last month test fired seven missiles, despite warnings from South Korea, the United States and other countries that missile launches would further isolate the impoverished, communist-led country.

South Korea turned over wartime command to an American-led United Nations force in 1950, soon after North Korea invaded the South. An armistice in 1953 halted fighting in the Korean War, but the U.S. retained wartime command.

In October, the United States and South Korea are expected to announce a timetable for returning wartime command to Seoul. Under the plan, the U.S. will command only its troops in the event of hostilities on the peninsula.

Current South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung downplays the criticism, saying U.S. forces will continue to play a critical role in defending the country.

Yoon said recently that U.S. troops will stay in South Korea for the foreseeable future, and will send reinforcements if they are needed.

Backers of the proposed command transfer, including South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, say it reflects changing realities. As South Korea has become a wealthy, technologically advanced nation, North Korea's economy has become more desperate and weak, affecting the balance of North-South power.

A summit between the leaders of North and South Korea in 2000 also helped change South Korean perceptions of the North from that of an immediate threat, to more of an impoverished relative.

Some South Koreans also are increasingly vocal about denouncing the U.S. military presence here as an infringement of sovereignty.

Washington has proposed turning over wartime command to Seoul by 2009. South Korean leaders say that is too soon, and want the handover to take place in 2012, or 2011 at the earliest.

The United States is in the process of cutting its forces in South Korea to about 25,000 troops, from about 37,000 three years ago. There have been reports this week that Washington plans to trim the force further, but U.S. military authorities in Seoul say no decisions have been made on final numbers. They add, however, that there will likely be between 20,000 and 25,000 forces deployed here after the command transfer takes place.

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